Towards a Mentoring Manifesto: Graduate Students and a Call to Mentor

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. No, wait. Actually, stop me if you’ve lived this before. A student takes a theatre class his freshman year. It starts as a means to an end: fulfilling a GE, but with an interesting subject. The professor is amazing—funny, engaging, articulate, brilliant. She changes the student’s life, altering his life path away from law school aspirations and towards ambitions in academia. The student later works with the professor as a TA, absorbing the content and style of her teaching. And she advises him as he attends conferences, meets scholars, applies to PhD programs, and finishes his thesis. The professor guides and instructs in a way that introduces the student into a world where they are colleagues. In short, she mentored.

So yes, perhaps, the details are a bit individuated to my personal experience, though I trust the tale remains familiar enough amongst this crowd—whether you have played the part of the student or the professor. One coda I might add, however, is the joy that comes with seeing the former mentor at conferences. We were actually enjoying one such reunion at a dinner one evening in Nashville during ASTR’s 2012 conference; but I had to excuse myself so I could attend the membership meeting for the Graduate Student Caucus (GSC). That evening, the incoming president of ASTR, Dr. Heather Nathans, addressed the graduate students present. She invited us to—among other things—rethink how most of us might approach mentoring … to reconsider the model of mentorship known so well in stories like I shared above. She asked us not only to pursue relationships where we receive mentorship “from above,” but rather also to explore and create opportunities where graduate students themselves do the mentoring.

I struggled with this call to action. Not that I disagreed with its intent or philosophy. I simply lacked vision of what it would look like in execution. For my short time in this field, an apprenticeship model—like the one between my former professor and myself—was all I knew. So, I did what we do in academia: I asked a question. I asked what this might look like. President Nathans explained that the New Paradigms committee in ASTR suggested one example: an instance where concerns and initiatives of graduate students resulted in an ad hoc committee that eventually became instituted as a standing committee; one that has had a significant impact on the institutional organization of ASTR, its conference, and conversations in the field(s) of theatre and performance studies. So, what other ways might graduates students actively serve as mentors? in ASTR specifically or our field of study more generally?

These questions became a central conversation in the monthly meetings of the GSC’s leadership between the conferences in Nashville and Dallas. At the time, I served as one of the two Vice-Presidents, with Kellyn Johnson as President, Eero Laine as the other Vice-President, Michelle Mensah as Secretary, and Michael Morris as the Representative to the New Paradigms Committee. Soon after the conference, we discussed this call issued on mentorship and the topic more broadly. At the time, we were also revising a variety of mentoring-focused programs that take place at ASTR, including efforts to arrange opportunities for graduate students to meet both with faculty mentors at other institutions and graduate student mentors.

Early in our conversations we discussed having a larger deliberation of what exactly mentoring is, particularly in relation to our field and in ASTR. Great work has been done in years past by our counterparts in ATHE’s subcommittee for graduate students; resulting in a wonderful publication on the topic by Jill Dolan in the March 2013 issue of Theatre Topics. There are also plenty of other academic organizations which have produced great resources on mentoring; the Southern Association for Women Historians ( is one great example. We hoped that one way that the GSC could, in fact, heed President Nathans’ call for graduate students to take an active role in mentoring would be to organize a panel on mentoring that would eventually result in an ASTR Mentoring Manifesto—a document that could define and describe what mentoring looks like in our field of study and in ASTR specifically; a document that would serve not only graduate students entering the field, but also scholars across all stages in career. We also intended this Manifesto to become a document that would add to the other resources housed on ASTR’s new website.

Throughout the year, ideas for the panel developed. We explored whether to pursue a working session model or submit the idea as a career session. Ultimately, we went with the latter for a number of reasons, one being because it had already been decided that the 2013 conference would allocate two time slots for career sessions. Since we hoped the resulting document would appeal to various members of the organization, we decided to assemble a panel of participants at various stages of their careers: scholars, people working outside the academy, and graduate students. Eventually, we invited Stacy Wolf, Scott Magelssen, Heather Barfield, and David Calder to share their thoughts on mentoring. Rather than generating a single set of questions for all participants, the GSC leadership generated three to four questions for each specific participant. We then encouraged our panelists to choose which questions they would like to address for a few minutes.

Some of the questions we included:

  • What are different models of mentoring?
  • Why pursue someone as a mentor rather than as a colleague?
  • In mentoring within the humanities, there are often topics, which might be part of a mentoring toolkit in any discipline. This might include advice on teaching, conferencing, seeking funding, working on publications, completing the dissertation, balancing time between work and life, and considering professional development both inside and outside of the academy. What might be other topics of mentorship?
  • Are there topics related specifically to the fields of theatre and performance studies?
  • How do members of ASTR build mentoring relationships with individuals beyond the academy?
  • How can ASTR shape or contribute to such relationships?
  • What is helpful for graduate students or junior faculty to know while seeking a mentor?
  • Jill Dolan expresses the traits of a mentor should include someone who can be brutally honest while communicating willingly and in a timely fashion. What traits might you add?
  • What traits should a mentee have?

The career session was held on the Saturday morning of the conference. And as I am sure was the case for the other sessions, attendance was low. However, the GSC leadership is very grateful for the thoughts shared by the panelists and the open discussion we were able to have afterwards. Though I cannot share everything that was shared here, hopefully the sentiments will soon be available in our forthcoming manifesto. For now, here are some highlights taken from my own notes and those of Michelle Mensah.

  • Stacy Wolf discussed the importance of thinking of mentoring basically as when someone who knows something imparts that knowledge to someone who does not yet have that information, knowledge or skill. And that they tend to occur at transitional moment. She also addressed that mentoring relationships can exist in different temporalities—some can last over a several year arc and others can occur while working on a single project or even just for the span of a conference. Mentoring relationships can have import even when they take after these briefer models. She suggests that a mentee needs to be brave and ask for specific advice; but also mentors need to be clear about what they can and what they cannot take on at certain times.
  • Scott Magelssen spoke towards the distinction between the organic and institutional models of mentoring that we tend to have. He also addressed the vulnerability inherent to mentoring relationships and which is a bit different than other professional relationships we form. Suggesting the need for the field to foster an environment of support, he acknowledged an equal need to avoid building an illusion that mentors are superheroes that can rescue. Rather than a single mentor model, he suggested building a family of mentors, one filled with relationships that wax and wane. I cannot recall if it was during his comments or later during the discussion, but he also addressed the reality that this will mean sometimes receiving advice from different mentors that is completely contradictory and the need to learn how to navigate that.
  • Heather Barfield addressed that one avenue the organization could pursue is mentoring artists. Her work specifically addresses that in guiding artists through the processes and realities of applying for grants. But she suggested that this could be a sentiment that ASTR explored as an organization—finding ways the organization could mentor artists. She also addressed the aspect of self-mentoring; that in looking for work outside the academy, one might need to train oneself in order to do certain jobs. The training of a PhD puts you in a position to do that, but then you need to be able and willing to put in the effort to do that.
  • David Calder spoke to the variety of mentors as well: institutional academic advisor, scholarly mentors, and professional development guides. He addressed the significance of a mentor’s capacity to invite the mentee to become the better version of him- or herself. A mentor continues to help the mentee believe their best work is just around the corner. One piece of advice he suggested was that mentees recognize and respect the other mentees their mentor has.

Two recurring ideas were a need to think of mentorship in more flexible terms (particular in terms of longevity) and the power of thinking of mentoring as something that you do, not something you are. Mentoring takes place in actions. Looking over a specific document; asking a particular question; encouraging and critiquing in certain ways.

I personally found in David’s remarks something that resonated with a question I had going into the session and that I would like to see articulated in our forthcoming Manifesto: how does the specificity of theatre and performance studies shape what mentoring looks like in ASTR? And there’s something about what David said about a mentor helping a mentee envision a better self—it just reminded me of Victor Turner’s work on performance’s capacity to create a “subjunctive mood.” Are there other vocabularies or methodologies of our field that might inform how we think about the shape or execution of mentorship?

Towards the end of the session, Dr. Robin Bernstein explained that in the current state of the field, with more graduate students wanting to find out how to get work outside of the academy, she is being asked to mentor students in something that she does not currently know how to do. I do not know how to answer that concern. And I do not know that my colleagues in the leadership of the GSC have a response for it yet either. However, we are hoping to explore the possibility of putting together another panel that might address something like that. We might not be able to tell faculty what to tell us in regards to new paradigms; however, graduate students might be able to provide the effort to organize something that might in turn provide training for beleaguered mentors. As we work towards framing our Manifesto, the leadership of the GSC is also invested in the practical exploration of how we can provide mentorship as well as receive it.

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